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At long last, Idaho’s education and jobs crisis are getting the attention they sorely deserve. These issues are gearing up to be the story of the year in 2020 in the same way Medicaid Expansion was the story of 2018-19. Lawmakers are finally understanding that Idaho’s prosperity problem – a generation-long issue that continues to drain jobs and opportunity from our state – needs to be addressed. It’s a subject that impacts families, communities and the state as a whole. The all-stars who could lead us out of this crisis are Idaho’s talented kids enrolled in Career-Technical Education classes (“CTE”) and their equally talented teachers.

Throughout the fall, I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the language being used to describe our kids who seek employment as electricians, construction workers, medical professionals, farmers and the like. In an interview earlier this year, a rural teacher in Southern Idaho described CTE training as a potential “gold mine” for Idaho families. A member of Idaho’s latest K-12 Task Force recently described kids enrolled in CTE classes as akin to “NBA Draft picks” because they were getting job offers before they even completed their course of study. When you consider the fact that last year, more than 6,300 STEM-related jobs went unfilled in Idaho to the tune of $412 million in unclaimed wages – money that should have gone into the pockets of Idahoans but didn’t – describing CTE students and their teachers in such positive terms is not hyperbole. This is especially true since many of those jobs can be filled by people with high school, certificate, or two-year degrees.

This positive language compares starkly to how CTE students have been characterized in the past, which is to say they have been soundly ignored by the politicians. Idaho is not alone in this. Kids enrolled in the “trades” have gotten little attention from the politicians all across the nation. State and federal officials talk a lot more about physicists than they do plumbers; mathematicians over mechanics; and engineers over electricians. If this strikes you as just a little bit insulting, it should. As the grandson of a tile-setter and the son of teachers, I for one take offense to the short-change Idaho’s CTE students and their instructors have gotten over the years in this state.

I am encouraged by the change in language and the seeming change in heart our state leaders are showing toward these Idaho students and their teachers for several reasons. First, we all know that college is not the right path for every kid. It’s expensive and requires study in subjects that have nothing to do with rebuilding an engine or converting a house from knob-and-tube wiring (rubber insulation) to modern wiring (plastic). Second, rural Idaho students can better use CTE skills to start their own businesses and attain family-supporting jobs in their home communities. Finally, as noted above, the students with strong CTE instruction could very well be the people who lead Idaho out of our job’s crisis, strengthen our communities and put our entire state on the path to prosperity.

It’s one thing to talk about CTE students and their dedicated teachers in such lofty terms as “NBA Draft picks,” but it is quite another to take action. Idaho’s elected leaders have shown a propensity for giving lip-service to our state’s education and jobs crisis for the better part of a generation. While I am encouraged by the rhetoric, I continue to question the state’s willingness to act on such a monumental issue. I certainly hope the 2020 legislative session proves me wrong. The stakes could not be higher.

At some point, it may fall to the citizens of Idaho to take matters into their own hands to address the education, jobs and prosperity crisis in our state. If it does, it’s important to know that a vote for education investment is a vote for every working man and woman in this state; a vote for every Idaho family that puts food on the table because of the work they do everyday to build our houses, grow our food or keep our trucks running. It’s about time those Idahoans and the talented people who teach them got their due.

They could be the people who save this state.

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